NYT published a profile of Israeli Prof. Yuval Noah Harari earlier this month. He was visiting Silicon Valley to promote his latest book - 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He stopped at Google’s campus and they have posted the discussion on their “Talks at Google” channel. Below are my notes from the talk. It is better to watch Mr. Harari directly - Link.

Free Will

Philosophical ideas from 18th century - The idea that “Customer is always right”. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Follow your heart. They assume that “Free choices of individuals” are the ultimate authority. In the economic field, corporations retreat behind this as their last line of defence. If the customers want it, then it must be right.

It is a myth that desires of the customers is the ultimate authority, and they represent their free will. These Ideas did well for last 2-3 centuries, however are no longer applicable.

Randomness is not freedom. Humans certainly have a will, but they are not free / independent to choose. They depend on a multitude of factors which they don’t choose. Humans were so complicated that practically it was considered free will (their inner realm of thoughts, desires and feelings). This is no longer the case.


Mr. Harari separates religion from spirituality. He opines that spirituality is about big questions about life, and religion is about answers.

He said - “At this point in history, Spirituality is probably more important than any other point in history. We are now forced to confront spiritual questions, whether we like it or not. Earlier very few people were interested in most important questions of life. Engineers must tackle spiritual questions. At the time of crisis, philosophy has little power. Even when Kant, Mill and Schopenhauer agree about morality of something, their agreement has little to no impact. Engineers’ decision however have mathematical certainty about the outcome. Very old spiritual and philosophical questions are now practical questions of engineering.”

Religion vs. Spirituality - Concept of Human fictions. Spirituality should be an integral part of deploying technology. In order to organize humans on a large scale, you need some fiction, which humans invented, but only when a critical mass agreed and decided on how to behave. He equates fundamental beliefs of religions to “fake news”.

Same is true in economy. Corporations and currencies are also stories we invented. Google is a story, created by powerful Sharman’s called lawyers. It is legal fiction. If a more powerful Sharman, comes and says that I don’t like your story, and you need to be broken into two different fictions.


Suffering is the most real thing in the world. If you want to know if a story is about real / virtual entity, you can test about whether they can suffer. Google cannot suffer, so it is a virtual entity. Some of the best and most powerful forces in the world are shared fictions / stories. Far more powerful than any individual human or animal. They can be tremendous force of good, but they are here to serve us, and not vice-versa. We are real, they are not. Nation is not more real than me.

QA #1 Solve

Among the 21 lessons, which one is easiest to solve?

The current incarnation of fake news problem has to do with the model of news and information market. Exciting news for free, in exchange for attention. This is a problematic model. Human attention has become a constrained resource. Truth gets put aside, before excitement/attention. The solution to the problem would be to change the model to high-quality news, which is expensive, but don’t abuse your attention. People pay for high quality food, cars, but not news.

How to enforce solutions by global organizations? Change the public conversation from local to global problems. If people are only worried about local problems, they won’t be effective in solving global problems. Nuclear War, Climate Change and Technological disruption (AI and biotech) are the three largest ones.

QA #2 Intelligence

How to use our intelligence better, at scale (know yourself better)?

Knowing yourself is necessarily about narrow sense of intelligence. High IQ is not required to know themselves. Some people explore themselves through therapy, meditation, art, sports (hike, trail). They are not necessarily about intellect. It is not about reading an article about brain science. Knowing yourself is a democratizing force. You don’t need some special laboratory to for it.

QA #3 Compassion

Is technology is reducing our compassion? How to motivate members of society to be more compassionate.

Technology is not inherently undermining compassion. Communication tech can make you aware about plight of people across the world. Design of current technology and self can be made to make us more compassionate. Our ability to manipulate/re-engineer ourselves is growing, therefore it is important to take compassion into account. Governments and corporations want more intelligent/decisive workers and citizens. We may end up engineering more decisive/intelligent humans instead of more compassionate people. Getting to know yourself is the key to develop compassion. Whatever makes you miserable, makes you understand that it will also make other people miserable. When you ignore/mistreat others, it very often harms you before it harms others. It is a very unpleasant experience to be angry. Your anger harms you. The more you know yourself, the more incentive you have to do something about anger, fear, and they discover peace and compassion in themselves.

QA #4 Reading

Read very eclectically, no book is barred, from entering the book list. Extremely impatient about the books to read. Drop 9 out of 10 books while reading till 10th page. If book didn’t teach me something new within 10 pages, maybe not worth to finish it. Goes through a lot of books to find something that really grabs him.

QA #5 Meditation

How has meditation influenced your life?

It has tremendous influence, on inner peace but also work. Have more clarity and more focus. Everything kind of distracts you. You have to decide what is really important and what can be left outside. Passive meditation, is about knowing the difference between fiction and reality. What is really happening right now. Mind is like a factory, which constantly generates stories about myself, about the world. Meditation is about, it is just a story, leave it. Stay in what is happening right now. It guides him in studying history etc.

QA #6 Inequality

Inequality rising across the world. How to use Technology to solve this problem about creating equitable world?

We need a different economic paradigm. Because of automation revolution, more and more people will be pushed out of job market. The pace of change in job market will accelerate. People don’t have the psychological balance and stamina to constantly retrain themselves. What do you do when more and more people are left out. There are experiments about new models, but the should be truly universal. There will be more inequality between countries, and not within countries. Automation revolution will make some areas very rich. Countries which depend only on labour will get left out. They won’t have the resources to transform themselves. What do we do about people on Guatemala and Bangladesh who will lose their jobs.

QA #7 Future

Method to make better predictions about the future?

We can’t predict it, but we can influence it. As a historian, history is not a study of the past, it is the study of change. How human society changes. Map different possibilities than making predictions. Keep a broad perspective. We are convinced of our predictions about outcomes, and we are not prepared for worst possible outcomes. Create a map of different possibilities.

Best, Umang